Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15
When I was going over this lesson, I learned something that had never come up in my studies before. I was rather surprised to read that II Thessalonians was a post-script sent almost immediately after I Thessalonians. I had believed that these two letters were written on the opposite ends of Paul’s ministry — and most of the commentaries I have read didn’t mention the early theory.
These two theories however pretty clearly describe what is found in these two books. One theory observes that the two books share the same structure and subject matter. The assumption is that Paul wrote the 2nd book with the first clearly in his mind; and that the topics found in the first needed clarification.
While I don’t think Paul’s letters were shared all over the world as soon as they were written, it is also clear that they were not read once and thrown away either. Basically, the fact that the two letters are structurally related does not mean that they were written at the same time — it only means that the writer of 2 Thessalonians had 1 Thessalonians at hand.
Both letters start mentioning that the Thessalonian church faces persecution. The first letter makes only a passing mention, while the second letter really focuses on persecution and the end of the world. The theory that 2 Thessalonians is written late is based on this content. Talking about persecution in 51 AD is very different than talking about persecution when Paul was executed under Nero in 67 AD. The main reason people argue for a later date is for the 2nd book is that it appears to refer to Nero’s persecution. Personally, I find this argument convincing, but, as you can tell the circumstances behind 2 Thessalonians are not as clear as in the first epistle.
What I think is important is that 2 Thessalonians was written in a way to call 1 Thessalonians to mind. The author did not intend the later book to be considered without the first, but alluded to it constantly. The second thing that I think is important to remember is that 2 Thessalonians is written to people who see the world coming to an end. If the people who argue that this is a late letter are correct, the Empire had now discovered Christianity and started to direct its strength to eliminating this new group and its leaders.
The difference between persecution before 50 AD and after 64 AD is at the earlier time the worst persecution came from people like Paul — individuals who took matters into their own hands. In 64 AD, official government persecution began. The difference is like this: In a country such as our own which has religious freedom, there have been times when churches have been burned or bombed, or somebody walked in to kill worshipers. From time to time, people speak of persecution within even the United States — but, few of us can imagine how dangerous it is when the nation is actively hostile to Christians. When Nero took a position on Christianity, there is no doubt that it felt like the end of the world.
I believe that 2 Thessalonians is written to people living in a time that felt like the end of the world. When it speaks of the evil one, there was a man who brought great evil to Christians everywhere. It is hard to see a future when the such powerful people decide that you don’t have one. When the leaders started getting killed off, you start to think that Jesus had better hurry up and come while there are Christians left in the world.
I believe that 2nd Thessalonians is a letter telling people how not to behave when the world is coming to an end. In retrospect, we know that the world didn’t come to an end then — but when Nero started lighting Christians on fire to light his garden at night, it must have felt like it. I understand their position! In the United States, where Christians live comfortable lives, many have been convinced that he end of the world would come.
When William Miller said the world would end October 12, 1844 — it is said that people put on their Ascension robes and climbed hills and waited for the second coming. You might remember, Allen Jay’s father suggested that he spend this October day chopping wood, because wood would be needed in the winter. Those waiting in the hills likely were not thinking about what they would be doing if Miller’s calculations proved wrong.
More recently there have been some more extreme behaviors concerning the end of the world. You might have heard the name Harold Camping; he wrote books on the end times and had a Christian talk-show. Camping predicted the world would end in September of 1994 — and, much more recently in May of 2011. Camping encouraged people to donate, because of course they would not need it when the world ended!
A more extreme example of how people behave came in 1997. There was a group of people convinced that the world was coming to an end, and the only way their souls could survive was to kill their bodies. This group believed that there was a space ship coming for their souls, and on March 26, 1997, police found the bodies of the Heaven’s gate cult — every one of them having committed suicide hoping this would allow their souls to survive.
We have “how not to act” down. Whenever people talk about the end of the world, it seems that people react in the wrong way. Lets consider this reading in this context: The world is ending, and the result is that there are people who don’t work; don’t worry about their debts, and mess around in other people’s business instead of their own! We have people who behave in the same sort of bad ways that many of us westerners would behave if we truly believed we knew that the end was *now*. Many of us would borrow everything possible — knowing that we would not need to repay, stop any plans for the future, and in our idleness become busybodies of the worst kind. If we believe the world is coming to the end — don’t act like this!
We need to follow the advice Allan Jay’s father gave him — chop wood, expecting that you want the wood when winter comes. Those who fail to follow this advice, according to the lessons history teach us, get tarred and feathered by the neighbors they harassed… or at least that’s what happened to the Millerites in 1844. Those borrowed money, expecting the world to end in 2011 or 2012 are still paying for their mistake. If the world ends tomorrow — may we all be chopping wood.